Punch and Presence: Dirty Vegas

South London house trio Dirty Vegas drove fullspeed into the public consciousness in 2002 when the band’s Grammy-winning debut single “Days Go By” was featured in a Mitsubishi commercial.
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On Electric Love, Dirty Vegas concentrates on intricate loops, complex effects, and a big bottom end

by Tony Ware

South London house trio Dirty Vegas drove fullspeed into the public consciousness in 2002 when the band’s Grammy-winning debut single “Days Go By” was featured in a Mitsubishi commercial. The song rode an aqueous melody, directed by an electrohaus thump and persistent five-note bassline. A seemingly simple formula, perhaps, but the balance of elegiac and driving proved an immense hit. The band would then go on to release a self-titled fulllength debut, with several charting singles, as well as a second full-length in 2004, before parting to pursue solo efforts in 2005. In 2009, however, Dirty Vegas reformed, and now Steve Smith, Ben Harris, and Paul Harris (no relation) have completed a third album, Electric Love–a 10-track record “marrying song structure with a dancefloor-oriented sound as well . . . concentrating on melody, harmony, vocals and chordal work, but with a prominent low-end punch,” says Ben Harris.

Dirty Vegas may have taken a hiatus, but technology kept right on evolving. So in the interim between 2004’s One and the writing process for Electric Love, the band transitioned its demoing process away from sequencing analog synths routed through outboard processors and an analog desk into a Mac tower, and instead packed sessions into a MacBook Pro running Ableton Live Suite 8 rewired into the Logic Pro 9 mixer alongside additional soft synths. Having each member in possession of a portable, standardized set-up allowed the group to sketch while on the road, as Dirty Vegas gigged heavily to support the selffunded recording sessions, and to float ideas to one another when they weren’t together—Smith lived in Boston and Ben Harris and Paul Harris were spread out across London.

Long a performance tool for the group, Ableton Live has also proved to be an essential studio component, and not only for jamming out ideas. While an initial use of the program was for in-time auditioning of loops and to establish rough arrangements, it was the program’s ability to draw on the clip envelope that had the most tangible effect on the final album. For example, on lead single “Electric Love,” there is a rising, sliding pitch effect on the guitars in the chorus, and that was established through Ableton’s automation. Logic, meanwhile, allowed the group to put aside its Akai hardware samplers and have a hub for comping and further processing.

Once initial demos were complete, Dirty Vegas set up a tracking session at Fish Factory Studios in Willesden, Northwest London, to take advantage of its 32-channel API Legacy Plus console. Smith, the group’s vocalist and drummer, was recorded on a full kit freestyling over the virtual percussion, and these recordings were mined for loops and one-bar phrases that could be further warped in Ableton Live and through Logic’s Flextime. Additionally, Ben Harris’ guitars were recorded both amped in the live room and through a DI box to balance grit and definition. While most overdrive processing was left for the DAW, certain synths were put through pedals, including the warm, diffusing Lovetone Big Cheese fuzz, in order to craft eight-bar loops that would easily be able to stand on their own in the mix (heard in songs such as “Never Enough”).

Vocals were demoed in hotel rooms with a Neumann TLM 103 through an Apogee Duet, and when the time came to replace the guide takes at the Fish Factory, Steve used a Neumann U47 through a Telefunken preamp. Paul Harris and Julian Peak, another production partner, maintain a studio in Chelsea with a collection of analog synths, such as a Roland Juno 106 and Jupiter 8, and these were captured to augment their digital counterparts.

With all the materials compiled, the band set out to develop its sonic real estate. With Electric Love intended as a more forward album with greater bass presence than previous projects, Dirty Vegas had a lot of high-frequency energy to take into consideration. On a track such as “Little White Doves,” which has a very full midrange with vocal, guitar, snare, weighty keyboard parts, etc., sidechaining with a compressor slide allowed elements to duck eachother’s volume a dB or two, tightening the mix up. Hard-panning with a short delay created a nice whip to help guitar and synth parts separate, while sharp EQ filters with large slopes provided the abrupt cut-off points needed to carve kicks to stand out, especially on smaller speakers. Sound- Toys’ Decapitator Analog Saturation Modeler, Nomad Factory’s Blue Tube valve driver, and Ohm Force Ohmicide were extensively used to (re)contour edges when certain sounds were fighting for their seating.

“Analog-style distortion is a great way to get some separation, because it adds harmonics generated from within the sound itself, so it can further highlight difference between the competing sounds,” says Ben Harris. “You can use tricks to compensate for a lot. But I think ultimately, it’s about getting the best recording of something that’s integral to the song, and also understanding arrangement rather than trying to scoop things out and boost things up with EQ for hours.”

Simon Duffy, who handled the mixdown of Electric Love in Logic and Ableton on an eight-core Mac Pro with external compressor over the mix out, agrees to an extent. While he certainly appreciates and celebrates the contribution of plug-ins such as the Sonnox Oxford EQ and Dynamics, and he recommends creative use of SoundToys’ EchoBoy for slow LFO and random filter detuning on bass synth to fill things out with personality (especially effective in the song “Today”), Duffy feels that Dirty Vegas established tones that really cut through the mix even prior to his involvement, especially on the vocal front.

“I’ve always thought what made Moog basses great was the constant weight of the sound…it gave you the ability to put it 10dB up or down in the mix, and it’d always sound right and never lose its weight…and Steve’s voice has the same quality,” Duffy says. “I did compress him a lot—I love hearing all the breaths and movement in a vocal—but apart from adding a slight shelf from 8k up, I didn’t really have to worry too much.”

That doesn’t mean a boost can’t be a good thing, however. “Another very useful technique for Steve’s vocals was pushing the knee on Vintage Warmer without pushing the gain,” says Duffy. “As the last bit of processing on his lead, this would give him a uniformity of presence throughout the mix that made riding vocals an absolute pleasure later in the mixdown…a great presence without that awful over-compressed sound anything else would give you. It’s also great for bringing the sound of the room it was recorded in right up. This is really apparent in ‘Emma,’ which has a lovely, dry vocal sound that keeps all the inflections and emotions of the performance without covering it in sugar.”

As for the main instrumentals, Duffy mixes with a lot of high-pass filters engaged, to allow for the sensation of a full, fat sound without a bloated bottom end, allowing for the final placement of “a real meaty bass drum and bass with no interference from anything else.” He then puts the mix through at least one trip out of the box and back before bouncing a mix, in order to “round out the wave.”

“In most cases, the songs were built like jigsaw puzzles, so you wouldn’t get a complete picture until the last synth had been locked into place…the guys’ arrangements are very clever in this respect,” summarizes Duffy. “Everything that was in there was exactly what was needed to make the song stand up, and if you took any one piece away, it would all fall down! So my job was mostly to get the punch and pressure in to the songs and thicken things up where it was needed.”